Photo by little plant on Unsplash

Wednesday, January 6, was a strange day in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Illinois where I am a prisoner.

The world was tense with anticipation. Congress was going to certify the election results, and Republicans were going to object. The President was having a rally. What was going to happen? You could feel the nervous energy here, the tension.

When the rioters stormed the Capitol, it was completely silent. Usually there are people talking or yelling and music playing. On this day, you could have heard a pin drop. None of us could believe what we were seeing. This isn’t democracy! This isn’t America! Guys in here were outraged. This wasn’t a protest, this was an actual coup attempt!

We have lost our rights. We can’t vote or own a gun, among other things. For the most part we are exiled; we aren’t even citizens. But the men in here are smart and aware. Every one of us would have stood a post and defended the Capitol. We would have defended this country.

That’s in stark contrast to what actually happened, isn’t it? What took place showed the country, the world, what White privilege looks like. Those people beat police, stormed a federal building, and some were even armed with weapons. They killed people. Still, they were not shot or even arrested for what they were doing. 

Instantly my mind flashed back to George Floyd, the unarmed Black man murdered by police for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. Breonna Taylor, sleeping in her bed, shot and killed by police. The list seems endless, and it seems to grow every day. I thought of the protests over the summer. Yes, some were violent, but many were peaceful marches. Yet the police were militarized with armored vehicles and assault weapons slung on their chest.

Peaceful protesters were pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, beaten with batons and arrested while they were marching for civil rights, for the freedom not to be shot and killed for simply being Black. How is that more worthy of police brutality than an actual attack on our Capitol? White men were actively looking for Vice President Mike Pence to hang him. Those weren’t just words; they built a gallows to do it.

Most White people bristle at the word “White privilege.” They say they don’t know what it is or have never been recipients of it. They will say it doesn’t exist. But there it was on January 6 for all of America to see. Had that been a Black march on the Capitol, there would have been a slaughter.

I watch the news sometimes, and I count how many Black people and White people are shown accused of committing some kind of crime. It never fails: there are always more Black people shown than White. I am from Chicago, and you can’t tell me that only Black people are committing crimes here.

This may seem small, insignificant even, but it’s not. This is part of the problem. This is why a White woman instinctively clutches her purse tight when a Black man walks past. Black people are portrayed as criminals, animals, gang bangers, and dope dealers. This is the message put out night after night by the mainstream media. The underlying message is, “Be careful, Black people are criminals.” 

How you portray people on a daily basis makes a difference. It seeps in, even unconsciously. The nightly news has stereotyped an entire race of people.

We have to see that there is institutional racism and that the very way things are structured is racist. If institutional racism did not exist, why then was there a need for affirmative action? Why did laws have to be made so that Black people could get a job?

You cannot change things or make things more fair without first recognizing that the problem exists. Once we admit to institutional racism, we can begin to dismantle it. We can move forward, make changes and treat everyone with the dignity they deserve.

White people don’t like saying, “Black Lives Matter.” Instead they like to say, “All Lives Matter.” Why is it so difficult to say that Black people’s lives matter? How is it political? You must understand that all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.

All of this was on display on January 6 as White people carried Confederate flags through the Capitol. The message they were sending was terrifying.

I am a White man, but I still believe that you have to see people as people. I have a niece who is Black. She is my light, and my treasure, and I am terrified for her. I’m terrified for all of us. We need to treat everyone with fairness and compassion. This country is founded and built on racism and violence. It’s time we reversed course and treated everyone as Americans.

The Capitol riots should have opened people’s eyes to the injustices of policing and society at large. 

As the riots wound down, and these thoughts occurred to all of us, you could feel the energy leave. Guys were quiet, almost depressed. What so many guys in here experienced themselves was on a TV screen for the world to see. What was depressing was knowing that most people would talk themselves out of what they just saw. Most people wouldn’t believe what was on full display.

We can do better. It starts with each of us individually. Do better, be better, and we can change the world.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Anthony Ehlers

Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional in Illinois. He is a student in the Northwestern Prison Education Program.